Wednesday, April 18, 2012

What Radio Taught Me about Writing

I just realized that February 29th, Leap Day, was the one year anniversary of my stepping down from my radio gig. The move prompted a lot of mixed emotions but I realize now how much I took away from the experience. It seems I realized it a lot earlier. That's why I'm reposting this entry from the Way Back Machine. It's as true now as it was when I was still in the thick of it.

from Sunday, January 24, 2010

Radio and Writing
Here's something I have learned. If you want to be a writer, you have to write. If you want to be a good writer, you have to read. If you want to be a good, published writer, you have to throw yourself hip deep into a dizzying array of books, blogs, websites, pamphlets, handouts and group loops to clutch madly at the information twister that will hopefully suck you up out of your own personal Kansas and drop you safely onto the best seller list. It's enough to make you rage madly or, in my case, lie helplessly on the kitchen floor staring at that mysterious gravy stain that made it onto the light fixture. It is bewildering to say the least.

One of the question aspiring writers are supposed to be able to answer is "What qualifies you to write the book you want to write?" This always seemed to me a strange question to ask a fiction writer. What's the appropriate answer? "I spend a great deal of time pretending this isn't my life?" Somehow I doubt that would be welcomed. Instead, I started thinking about what there is in my life that has made me a better writer.

As many of you know, I have spent the last fifteen years hosting morning radio at WKEE in Huntington WV. It's a great job with just enough absurdity to keep it interesting. It also prepared me for storytelling in ways I would not have expected. Here are a few things I've learned:

1. Your audience is smarter than you. Make no mistake about it. I am an intelligent woman. I have a strong education, a deep vocabulary and an almost preternatural ability to retain information and I have learned (sometimes the hard way) that the audience is smart. And clever. And they don't miss a thing. I've seen more than one radio host flame out in despair by making the fatal mistake of talking down to his audience. Is this intimidating? It doesn't have to be. It's actually very liberating, if you look at it right. It gives you the freedom to stretch yourself, to make the leaps, to push your limits. Never dumb things down. Never be afraid to challenge your boundaries. Not only will the audience keep up with you, they're probably already way ahead of you.

2 Get to the point. That said, you can assume everyone is on the same page as you if not a few pages ahead. Don't dilly dally. Don't linger over describing the drapes and think your audience won't know you're stalling. Your audience, whether for a radio show, a novel, a short story or a poem, has agreed to give you a slice of their precious time. Don't waste it. Reward their generosity with forward motion. I'm not saying I don't like building a little suspense, but time is a pricey commodity. Respect that.

3. Keep it entertaining. I'm a genre writer on a pop station. It's safe to say that "deep" is not the first word that springs to mind when people describe me. This doesn't mean my work and/or my show doesn't resonate with real emotion. What it means is I appreciate the fact that once you fulfill your requirements for whatever education level you pursue, your days of slogging through dry, stultifying books should be over. As kids, we were forced to finish the books to get the grades that would launch us into our 'real lives.' Now there is no gold star for wading through a deadly book. No matter how important your message, how poignant your tale,how heated your politics, your audience doesn't owe you their attention. You earn it by couching even the most tragic story into a compelling, entertaining narrative. On air, we often have to promote charity events for truly tragic happenings - Haiti relief, cancer survivor fundraisers, flood relief for hundreds of displaced families. Not light stuff. Even though the work we do in those cases is important, we still don't have the right to strip our broadcast of its humanity, of its compelling narrative. We are humans talking to humans. Keep it real or keep it to yourself.

Radio has taught me timing, patience, humor and endurance. Most of all it has taught me that an audience is not some great, seething mass of a collective consciousness, like some well-dressed clot of algae on a pond. It is a collection of individuals, each with his or her own voice and dreams and likes and biases. You can't please them all, but you can respect them. Whether on air or on paper, you can give them your best and maybe, just maybe, they'll repay you in kind.